Friday, July 29, 2011

Some Wines *Not* Safe for Beginners To Start With

By Mac McCarthy

Editor, SavvyTaste

Reason: These wines take getting used to -- They are dense, intense, tannic, and acidic -- or they are expensive and risky. Stay away until you've got some experience under your belt....

ZAP Festival San Francisco 2010
Zinfandel Yeah!
Zinfandel – Me, I love big, jammy red Zinfandels — heck, I volunteer at the big ZAP Zinfandel festival every January in San Francisco, where 300 winemakers serve up over 800 Zinfandels! But others find it overwhelming. Exceptions: Any relatively inexpensive red Zinfandel with an aggressive, hard-hitting name intended to give you the impression that this is one bad Zin, baby! — is likely to be light and easy to drink — the name is a marketing gimmick. For example, Seven Deadly Zins, Earthquake Zin, and Cardinal Zin (best label ever, though) are fun and easy to drink, fruity, and affordable (thank goodness!). (This is similar to the marketing-wine rule that any wine with a fun, jokey, smartalecky name and picture is probably junk wine that, however, *tastes great*! Not sophisticated — just fun.
Jean Edwards Cellars 2007 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
Jean Edwards Napa Cab: If you like Cabs, this is an example of one you'll really like.
Cabernet Sauvignon– is usually made as a Big Red — heavy, tannic, sometimes expensive, and highly variable in flavor and style. You won’t know what you’re buying, so drink someone else’s until you find brands that work for you.
Merlot – Can be absolutely delicious when made right, but bland and mediocre if not; unfortunately, the best-tasting Merlot is the most expensive Merlot.
French Bordeaux and Burgundy – Because the good ones are expensive, the really good ones are very expensive, and the affordable ones vary all over the map in flavor and quality. Don’t jump into this world yet; drink OPB — Other People’s Bordeaux.
Argentinean Malbecs – Can be as big and intense and amazing as a great California Cab — but, unfortunately, just as costly. If you’re willing to spend the bucks, go ahead, you will rarely be disappointed. (Which is wonderful, because a couple of decades ago, Argentinian Malbec was dreck!)
Champagne – In general, the best are expensive; and surprisingly many people don’t really care for the taste of champagne, even good champagne — it has an acidic edge that you might not like. If you have to buy Champagne, go for the Champagne-type bubblies made elsewhere in France: Clairett de Die Cave Carod, for example, can cost as little as $13(!). Cremant d’Alsace is another winner. And there’s a Champagne-style bubbly made by a winery called Gruet in, of all places, New Mexico, that costs as little as $8.50 — yet tastes great. (If you like Champagne, that is — see above.) Can you believe that? I’ve tasted it, and it’s true.
China – The best-known red wine from China is from a winery called Great Wall. Really. Its  Cabernet Sauvignon is awful, truly awfuo. One day, maybe soon, China will produce good wines for export; we’ll be glad.
California Syrah – I love West-Coast Syrahs — because they are made in a dense, big-red, intense, fruit-forward style that I love. As a beginning wine drinker, though, you may find it as overwhelming as big red Zins. However, Syrah can also be made in lighter styles, and is the backbone of the blend of wines that makes up Rhone-style reds, where the mix is much easier on the palate.
Port – Port wines and the related styles of Sherry can be a traumatic experience for beginning wine drinkers. They put brandy in it! And you can taste it! Arrgh!
An exception might be Madeira – maybe. It’s just as dense, intensely sweet, even raisiny, yet not as harsh. Have a sip.

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What advice do you give to beginning wine lovers?


Wino John said...

Wow. Several of your choices I disagree with.

Merlot is usually a safe "entry" red. So if you are willing to start with red, it's a good choice. Sure, great Merlot is not affordable, but decent Merlot is.

Argentinian Malbec? Are you kidding? At under $15 per bottle, it is THE intro red in today's market. Of course, it isn't that good. It isn't even a good representative of the Malbec grape, but it is a great place to start a novice red wine drinker.

I agree most TRUE Champagne is too expensive, but it is very easy to enjoy. I would advise a novice wine drinker to seek out Spanish Cava, or California Methode Champenois sparklers, and stay away from the Charmat Process bubblies, which can have an off flavor.

I agree that Zinfandel and Syrah can be a minefield as far as differentiating between approachable and tannic monsters, but you don't mention Petite Sirah at all.

There are sure to be some novice wine drinkers who see "Peite Sirah", and think: "Oh, that must be a 'lighter' version of Syrah." Wrong. Petite Sirah is ALWAYS more tannic than Syrah, and usually the most tannic wine a winery makes.

McWong said...

My object is to warn newbies away from two *categories*: Wines that are too "big" and tend to be an acquired taste (like Petite Sirah, which I did indeed overlook, though fortunately it is still not in large supply at beginner-drinker prices); and wine types that are, as you say, a minefield because it's hard for a novice to distinguish between the stuff they'll be able to drink and the acquired-taste or even the bad-tasting stuff.

Merlot falls into the latter category. Decent Merlot is a delight even beginners can enjoy. Decent inexpensive Merlot is not widely available, nor easily distinguished from crap. Fortunately, there's not much cheap-crap Merlot around any more, because the industry shot itself in the foot during the late lamented enthusiasm for Merlots in the 1980s. For novices, it's just too hard to figure out what you're doing in the Merlot aisle, so it's easier to just stay away.

Malbec likewise: Cheap Malbec I wouldn't recommend to a novice; good Argentinian Malbec, which tastes similar to a good Cab, is too expensive for a novice.

Again with Champagnes: I could list specific bottles that are inexpensive and yet tasty, but this isn't a list of specific wines but of categories - and generally speaking, what novices see in stores is real Champagne or its equivalent at high prices, or junk sparklers at low prices. It's a tricky category, just like the others I cited.

The thing about novices in wine is that they don't always carry a list of specific wines to the store with them -- they aren't *that* much into wine -- so broad strokes that are easy to recall when you happen to see a bin of bargains at Costco will direct them -- in very broad strokes -- away from general categories that would require them to remember more specific details.

Even Zins, for example, have a number of brands that are very easy even for those who have never had Zin before -- Seven Deadly Zins, for example, has all its ferociousness in its name, none on its palate. But that's not the point of this particular entry.

And advising them to seek Spanish Cava or Californai Methode Champenois sparklers, but not Charmat Process ones -- very good advice -- will leave some novices scratching their heads because they won't even be sure where on the label to look for this information. (We know, but you'd be surprised how intimidating wine labels can sometimes be for a novice).

It occurs to me that in my SavvyTaste reviews of specific wines, I should add a remark on each wine I liked as to whether it is something a novice would be able to enjoy; that would help them dig deeper into the specifics as they grow in their understanding and appreciation.